Dark spot in red zone

The lives and livelihood of the sex workers of Sonagachi have come to a standstill — from rents that have not been waived off to difficulting in accessing food for themselves and their families

Abeda Bibi’s aged parents live in a small village in Nadia, 127 km from their daughter’s workplace in the heart of the northern part of Kolkata. She sends money to them every month, and that is the old couple’s only source of income. Moreover, Abeda’s 75-year-old mother suffers from complete paralysis from neck down, and all her medical expenses are taken care of by their daughter.

Ever since the nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March, Abeda has not earned any money, and hence cannot send a single penny to her ailing and old parents, while she is stuck here in her rented accomodation, and cannot go home. “I have no idea what is happening to my parents who are so far away from me. The thought of my mother not getting treated properly gives me sleepless nights,” she says with despair.

Abeda is one of the 7,000 sex workers stranded in Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red light area. According to data obtained from Durbar Mahila Samanyay Samity(DMSS), the official group formed by the sex workers of the area, there are almost 12,000 sex workers currently operating in the area, out of which 5,000 have already left for their homes after the lockdown was announced.

“Only those who live nearby have left for their homes, many of us here have our homes far away, and most of us have made our homes here, so it is difficult for us to leave this place”, says Kajal Bose, the secretary of DMSS and a sex worker herself.

Their income, says Bose, has been completely zero ever since the lockdown began. Every day, an average of 25,000 customers used to come to the area. “Business had begun to dip as the news of the virus started spreading across the community, and now it has come to a standstill for more than two months,” she adds.

“I live with my family — my son, daughter-in-law and my little grandson — right in the heart of this area, and with my income coming to a standstill, it is now very difficult to sustain, since my son doesn’t earn enough to support a family of four,” says Vishakha Laskar. “This Coronavirus is even worse than HIV,” she adds.

Even living in Sonagachi during the times of pandemic comes with its own sets of problems. When walking through the serpentine lanes of the area, adjoining houses have little to no space between them. The rooms in these houses are pretty small, and each room is not even big enough for one person to stay. Most of these sex workers have children, who live with them in these rooms.

Of course, in these cramped spaces, it is nearly impossible to follow social distancing .“On an average, 50 -60 people live in a single house, and hence the possibility of the spread of the Coronavirus, if it infects any one, is very high,” says Bose.

Again, with no income during this time, paying the rent for these houses has been extremely difficult for these sex workers. “Most of the house owners have deferred the rent for three months, but that is just temporarily. We have to pay the outstanding amount once the lockdown is lifted,” says Laskar. Rents in the area start from Rs 5,000 and go as high as Rs 1 lakh. So, without any income it is difficult to pay even a month’s rent, let alone the accumulated sum once the lockdown ends.

Even getting basic food has been a challenge for the women in Sonagachi. “There are only a handful of ration shops in the area that provide us with our rightful ration. Some shops do not even entertain our demands due to the stigma attached to our profession,” says Sima Pokhla, a resident of Sonagachi for more than two decades.

“Do we not deserve the right to ration that the government has promised us?” she questions. She says that it is only the basic rice, pulses and flour that they are getting from the shops, and many sex workers, including her, have not even tasted vegetables for days at a stretch. “Sometimes, we even have to skip meals”, she adds.

“We get 5 kg of rice per month from the government. Is it enough to sustain a family of four?” asks Laskar. Bose says that essentials like gas, oil and other food items like biscuits are being provided by the DMSS, but she doesn’t know for how long they can carry on. Incomes have dried up, and our cash savings are almost on the verge of ending,” she worryingly asserts. “We also are daily wage labourers, but will we get the same rights and privileges that other poor labourers have? I highly doubt so,” says Pokhla.

Adding to their woes, the area and all adjoining areas have been declared as containment zones by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Getting basic necessities is a challenge, as most of the women there are not well versed with online delivery services. People do not even want to provide doorstep delivery services due to the stigma attached with Sonagachi. Thankfully, in spite of the areas being marked, none of the sex workers there have tested positive.

The women fear that business will not resume as usual, and perhaps never be the same once the lockdown ends. “Our profession is such that we are bound to have physical contact, and the fear of contracting the virus may drive away customers,” says Bose. She adds that even they might have to restrict the flow of customers, in order to keep avoiding physical contact as far as they can. This fear of the virus, in addition to stigma, may prove a dangerous combination that can harm the lives of these sex workers forever. “We stare at an uncertain future,” concludes Bose.

(Cover Image: Almost 7,000 sex workers are stranded in Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light area // Credit: Jonathan Van Smith)

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